Who should represent Utah residential and small business customers in hearings before the Public Service Commission? That question is confronting lawmakers in an amended Senate bill that seeks to change the rules of the game.

Essentially, the legislation deals with the issue of whether small customers of public utilities should have independent representation before the PSC, or whether that responsibility should go to a political appointee.Given the changes in public utilities - what with mergers, divestitures, deregulation, and technology innovations - it is not surprising that consumers want assurance that their concerns will be heard and considered by the PSC.

The intent of SB68, sponsored by Sen. Karl Swan, D-Tooele, was to provide that assurance by granting the Utah Committee for Consumer Services, independent status within the Department of Business Regulation.

The committee, which serves as an advocate for residential and small business customers, has been a part of the Division of Public Utilities since its inception, and basically the relationship between the two agencies has been good.

The bill was intended to grant the committee authority to audit financial records of public utilities and to testify in regulatory cases at the federal level and in out-of-state court cases with the potential for affecting Utah consumers. That role is essentially in harmony with two legislative audit recommendations.

However, changes by the Senate's Business, Labor and Economic Development Standing Committee has given the bill a new look.

Instead of independence, the Consumer Services Committee would continue under the Division of Public Utilities in a reduced role and the committee director would become a gubernatorial appointee subject to Senate confirmation.

Most of the changes came at the suggestion of representatives of the Utility Shareholders Association which represents shareholders for Utah Power and Light and to a lesser extent, Questar, the parent company of Mountain Fuel Supply.

Given the public outcry for better representation and involvement that punctuated last fall's election campaign, legislators may want to rethink SB68 with an eye towards compromise.

At a time when the public is demanding more involvement in government processes, adding another political appointee, especially one that could have a direct impact on taxpayer's pocketbooks, does not appear to be a prudent course of action.